The Nationals had a pretty quiet offseason . . . until the whole thing went up in flames.
The Washington Nationals' offseason was much like traffic at the ACME Heart Maker: not much happened until February. Up to that point, the Nats didn't do much but lick their wounds and pretend to be upset that they lost 102 games. I mean, yeah, it's not exactly fun to be the worst team in the majors, but what if they had been two games better? They still would have been in last place, they still would have drawn horribly, and they wouldn't have gotten the #1 overall pick. It's like pulling off a Band-Aid. If a Band-Aid took six months to pull off.
Anyway, not much happened other than Mark Teixeira using the Nats like a crowbar to hoist the contract offers of teams he actually wanted to play for (and don't think the Nats weren't at least a little relieved that Mark decided the Yankees' 180 million was worth more than Washington's). But come February, Nats business picked up like they were selling teddy bears and Whitman samplers.
First off, they signed Adam Dunn to a two-year, $20 million contract. Maybe not a huge deal for a real team, but this is the biggest free agent signing in Nats history. It took the concatenation of a bad economy, an odd market for free agents, and Dunn's particularly undervalued skills for him to end up with Washington, but here he is regardless. Big news, right?
Not for long, it wasn't. A week after the Dunn signing, the Nationals got some very bad news. Turns out that a few years ago they signed a “16 year old” “prospect” from the “Dominican Republic” “named” Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez and handed him a $1.4 million bonus. We found out in February that the only part of that last sentence that was both in quotation marks and true was “Dominican Republic.” Gonzalez was actually named something completely different (Carlos Alvarez is how that seems to have shaken out – there were a couple additional names in there, but who cares?). He was not 16 when the Nats signed him; he was 20 and thus not much of a prospect. Sure, he won a batting title in the Gulf Coast League year, but suddenly that accomplishment was rendered as hollow as Billy Madison's domination of his first grade classmates at dodgeball.
The humiliation that followed this debacle is really just astounding, and the fallout has been suitably destructive. Smiley Gonzalez was more than just a nifty prospect; he was the token of the Nationals good intentions toward their fans. After years of being run by Major League Baseball, which forced corners and budgets to be cut and Grady Sizemores to be traded away, the new ownership was going to start doing things right by investing and building from the ground up. After the scandal broke, Carlos Alvarez was transformed into a token of the Nationals' incompetence and maybe even corruption.
This isn't the place to tell the story of the various scandals plaguing the ballplayer factories of the Dominican Republic. Suffice it to say that the Nats were involved in some shady dealings down there; shady enough for the FBI to start sniffing around, and shady enough to claim the jobs of the Nats' Dominican point man, Jose Rijo, and eventually that of the only general manager the Nationals have ever had: Jim Bowden, the tracksuit-wearing, Segway-riding harlequin whose steady hand guided the Nationals from an improbable 81 wins in 2005 to an unbearable 102 losses in 2009, is gone.
The signal event of the offseason has been this purification by fire. Great challenges await the hastily reorganized Nationals front office, which doesn't quite have a GM right now. Were 1.4 million dollars, public humiliation, a demolished Dominican operation, and organizational chaos worth finally dislodging Jim Bowden?
Yes, and it's not close.
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Written by Ryan Moore